Human beings are a sensitive lot when it comes to advice. Not in terms of giving it. We have no issue at all telling people what they should do with their life, their work, their health, their whatever. It’s when we’re on the receiving end that it becomes a prickly matter. And boy does it prick.
Especially in an era of Anthony Robbins and self-help books, of webinars and seminars, of Atkins and Paleo, of walking on hot coals and eating, praying, loving and leaning in, of positive thinking and vision boards, of affirmations and manifestations. We are saturated by well-meaning folk who know how to help us define our meaning, purpose, passion and love language.
For those of us who find that noise a little nauseating (or a lot), at least we can switch it off. We can ignore it, deplore it and not buy it. But what if the truth-teller is a colleague at work? Someone who knows exactly what our problem is and how to fix it? It suddenly becomes much harder to pretend they don’t exist. And to pretend the unsolicited advice is without consequence.
Those consequences, which we’ll get to soon, emerge for a number of reasons such as a perception the giver of advice is interfering, showing off, casting judgement or criticising prematurely – made worse when it’s done publicly in the office – because then there’s often an obligation to put on a pantomime, to act as though the advice is more than just two cents’ worth of grandstanding.
The work-related impacts of unsolicited advice have been examined in empirical research due to be published soon in the highly respected Journal of Applied Psychology. It comprised three studies, the first of which recorded the advice received by 131 full-time employees over a period of six months, including whether they asked for it and the extent to which they considered it useful.
As expected, the researchers found “employees perceive unsolicited advice as motivated by a desire to impress … which reduces how useful the recipient perceives the advice to be”.
The findings were reinforced, ever more strongly, in the second study which consisted of 107 employees who this time were asked to complete a daily survey over two weeks during which they noted the usefulness of the advice they received every day.
Once again, unsolicited advice was roundly condemned due to suspicions their colleagues had a non-collegial “desire to expose differences, flaunt knowledge and hurt or hinder the recipient … which reduced perceived usefulness, learning and task performance”.
That holds true even when the person giving advice is more of a friend than a colleague, as per the third study – an experiment involving 629 employees whose responses to hypothetical workplace scenarios revealed mateship was nowhere near enough to make up for what’s inherently unwanted.